I read a rather shocking report last week, which stated that our humble hedgehogs are heading for extinction. Apparently we appear to have lost around 30% of the population since 2002 and it seems likely that there are now fewer than a million hedgehogs left in the UK.
This means that they are declining in the UK at the same rate as tigers are globally – at around 5% a year, both in rural and urban habitats.
Hedgehogs will be looking for a mate at this time of year so are moving about a bit more and that’s when they seem to get into trouble. Apparently a hedgehog’s biggest predator is man, and not just in a car. Our gardens can be dangerous places for hedgehogs too. Garden ponds, netting, and half excavated trenches can all prove to be death traps for the little spiny creatures. Even the gaps in log roll edging have been known to trap a hedgehog’s leg.
And of course slug pellets and weedkillers can harm hedgehogs directly whilst the use of pesticides also reduces the amount of prey, or food, available.
But it is the environmental changes are likely to be the main cause of the drop in hedgehog numbers of late, with more intensive agriculture – with larger fields and the loss of hedgerows and permanent grassland – playing a major role.
Gardens, parks and school grounds have become too tidy and smaller, paved over for parking, or enclosed with impenetrable fences and walls.
New buildings and roads carve up suitable habitat, so that small populations can become isolated and more vulnerable to local extinction. And hedgehog road deaths are obviously still contributing to their decline.
Badgers are a natural predator of hedgehogs and hedgehogs actively avoid sites where there are badgers in high numbers. When there is sufficient cover and good foraging opportunities, badgers and hedgehogs can coexist, but when there is no safe refuge and the prey that the two species compete for is scarce, hedgehogs may lose out.
Also, the climate is changing and the weather is less predictable which can disrupt natural hibernation times, the availability of food and the chance of youngsters surviving the winter.
As hedgehogs are now out of hibernation their fat reserves will be low so they will appreciate a square meal. The British Hedgehog Society recommends putting out a dish of meaty dog or cat food (apparently hedgehogs prefer chicken or turkey flavour and you should avoid fish flavours), chopped up hard boiled eggs or even special hedgehog food. Never give them bread and milk as this can make them ill.
And don’t forget a dish of water too; interestingly, even more important than food is water apparently. During even short dry spells, puddles, shallow ponds and other accessible drinking holes dry up and hedgehogs can often struggle to find drinking water. The problems associated with extreme dehydration are obvious but like us, even lesser degrees of dehydration can lead to fatigue and confusion.